Delhi is choking due to smog, people are walking around with masks and anxious citizens are protesting as they demand their Right to Breathe.
Every year when the capital is engulfed in thick smog all fingers are pointed at one culprit -- the farmers and their contribution to the pollution due to stubble burning.
It is also believed that if maize is diverted towards ethanol production perhaps that will motivate farmers to change their sowing habits.
October marks the harvesting season of rice followed by the sowing of wheat. New seeds can be sown only when the paddy straw is cleared from the fields. Since there is not enough time, farmers often resort to setting the fields on fire in an effort to destroy the stubble that can be a source of pests for new plants.
But experts suggest that it is easier said than done as maize cultivation, too, is fraught with its own set of challenges:
1) Low MSP of Maize
Haryana and Punjab, two states known for surplus production of rice, form the ‘rice bowl’ of India.
One of the main reasons for the over-production of rice is the high MSP (Minimum Support Price) that farmers get for rice as well as wheat compared to other food grains.
"Dhan ugana kisan ki majboori hai (Growing rice is a compulsion for the farmer)," says Rajeev Sharma, a representative of the Bhartiya Kisan Union, from Haryana’s Ambala district.
“A farmer gets Rs 12,000-Rs 14,000 per per killa for maize. While he tends to get Rs 45,000 per killa for cotton. So maize is not viable for a farmer from the investment point of view.”Rajeev Sharma, Bhartiya Kisan Union
Another farmer leader, Onkar Khaira from Rajewal in Ludhiana, also concurs that unlike paddy, farmers struggle to sell maize and often incurs a loss.
“Only paddy and wheat are bought at MSP, maize is never bought at MSP. So farmers are reluctant to grow maize. Even though the MSP for maize, on an average, is around Rs 1,400 per quintal, a farmer sells it for Rs 800-1100 per quintal. Cost of production for a farmer is higher.”Onkar Khaira, General Secretary, Bhartiya Kisan Union
2) Only Indigenous Maize, Not Hybrid Variety Will Benefit Farmers
According to Avik Saha, member of the Swaraj India party, switching from rice to maize will work only when subject to certain conditions.
Saha who is the national convener of the ‘Jai Kisan Andolan’, an initiative that raises issues about rural distress, says:
“It will help if paddy farmers are encouraged to transition to indigenous maize (and not hybrid ones owned by multinational seed companies) which is a more environmentally sustainable crop. But the government has to ensure an assured market for maize with the same economic returns as paddy.”Avik Saha, National Convener, Jai Kisan Andolan
Saha agrees with the premise that since maize requires less water than rice, its cultivation can also address the problem of decline in groundwater level in Punjab and Haryana. But the experiment will be successful only when farmers get incentive for indigenous variety of maize.
His apprehensions stem from the fact that India’s experience with hybrid variety of maize, which is associated with higher yield, has not been that great.
In July 2015, the Gujarat government had announced withdrawal of a hybrid variety of maize seeds supplied by the multinational company Monsanto.
Following criticism by farmer activists, the state government had decided to stop distribution of hybrid maize seeds to tribals under its ‘Prabal’ program as the seeds were found to have negative impact on the soil in the long-run.
“There is also a concerted effort by seed companies to promote single-use patented seeds of maize whereby folk-varieties of maize are being lost for ever. It should be remembered that the farmers own the seed of these folk-varieties and thus their input cost is much lower.”Avik Saha, National Convener, Jai Kisan Andolan
3) Pilot Project in Haryana a Flop Show; Punjab is Still Clueless
In May 2019, Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar had launched the ‘Jal Hi Jivan’ project in seven districts – Karnal, Kurukshetra, Jind, Kaithal, Ambala, Yamunanagar and Sonipat.
The aim of the project was to encourage farmers to switch from rice to maize with the state government assuring volunteers that it will procure maize at the MSP.
Initially the district administration in these districts had set a target of converting at least 50,000 acres of land in selected blocks under paddy cultivation to maize. Later when they realised that there were few takers for the scheme, the plan was extended from block-level to the entire district, just so that their targets could be achieved.
In Kurukshetra, for example, when this reporter had spoken to a local farmer activist in August this year he had revealed that a local sarpanch had offered the common panchayat land to be part of the scheme. Individual farmers usually stayed away from the much publicised crop diversification programme.
While the initiative to switch from rice to maize turned out to be a flop show in Haryana, its neighbour Punjab too couldn’t come up with a viable alternative.
In 2015, Capt Amarinder Singh-led government had appointed agriculture economist Sardara Singh Johl as head of a panel on crop diversification.
Johl had suggested that the only way to promote crop rotation would be to offer compensation to the farmers incurred on growing crops other than paddy, a thought that’s still gathering dust in files.
According to the estimates by Johl Panel, the compensation scheme would have cost the state government Rs 1,280 crore.
“Four years ago, Sardara Singh Johl committee had suggested that if you want to convert a paddy farmer, he should be given compensation of Rs 5000 per acre. The farmer himself wants to move away from rice but the government does nothing on this front.”Onkar Khaira, General Secretary, Bhartiya Kisan Union
4) Ethanol Production From Sugarcane Hasn’t Been Smooth, Will Maize Meet a Similar Fate?
Those who have been advocating the conversion of maize to ethanol as a ‘Pollution Ka Solution’ need to realise that it was only in November 2018 that the Centre extended the Ethanol Blended Programme (EBP) to include maize, jowar, bajra and fruit/vegetable waste.
As part of the EBP initiative, launched by the UPA government in 2013, it was made mandatory for oil companies to sell petrol blended with 5 percent ethanol. The move was launched keeping in mind the gradual shift towards environment-friendly biofuels.
The primary source of ethanol in India has been sugarcane with sugar mills supplying molasses to oil retailers.
However, gaps in supply chain meant that ethanol production from sugarcane hasn’t been a smooth sail.
In an article, dated July 2018, that had appeared in environment magazine Down to Earth, Samar Lahiry, former adviser to the Planning Commission, had listed the following hurdles in the production of ethanol from sugarcane:
- Inconsistencies in supply of raw material
- Blending targets unfulfilled in the years when there is decline in sugar production
- Debts on mill owners due to unpaid dues for sugarcane crop affecting supply of molasses
Balsher Singh Sidhu, a research scholar at Canada’s University of British Columbia, further elaborated on the drawbacks of maize cultivation in an email interview to The Quint:
“If maize is used for producing biofuels, the energy yield is marginal (25% more than the energy invested in its production), so a majority of the grain’s energy is essentially wasted during biofuel production.”Balsher Singh Sidhu, Researcher, University of British Columbia
Sidhu, whose research focuses on the relationship between environment and agriculture in India, also warns of the drastic impact of forcing farmers to produce corn at the expense of other food grains: "Switching to maize essentially means less food production, which can raise food prices, as happened in the USA in 2007-08."
5) Lack of Adequate Storage Facility
Unlike rice or wheat, maize also known as corn is easily perishable and there aren’t enough storage facilities at the village-level which can assure farmer about his produce.
“Storage is also a problem. The warehouses provided by the Food Corporation of India are not enough.”Onkar Khaira, General Secretary, Bhartiya Kisan Union
The inefficiency of infrastructure meant for storage of food grains can be gauged from the fact that as of August 2019, the godowns of the Food Corporation of India were ‘packed to capacity’ with absolutely no space for the upcoming Kharif crops.
"Main problem is that of procurement and tedious task of drying," says senior journalist Vivian Fernandes. In Haryana, maize is a kharif crop which is grown during the monsoon season. Therefore, corn has to be dried immediately so that it doesn’t get contaminated with afflatoxin, a carcinogen produced by a certain variety of fungus. Farmers often find it to be a cumbersome task taking the produce to driers immediately after harvesting.
Last but definitely not the least, the enthusiasts who think that maize production may help in clearing skies in Delhi may want to refer to a recent study suggesting pollution by corn in the US.
In a study published in Nature Sustainability in April 2019, researchers had concluded that production of corn accounts for 4,300 premature deaths in the United States due to air pollution.
Excessive use of fertiliser had led to release of ammonia resulting in 54 percent air pollution-related deaths in the five corn producing states of Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska, Minnesota and Indiana.
So before you advise the farmers in India to switch from rice to maize, do keep these factors in mind as the need of the hour is to suggest practical solutions and not haywire ideas.